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Money Laundering Scandal Forces Puerto Rico's Governor to Cut His Vacation Short — Just in Time for Another Scandal

A leaked chat full of memes and misogyny has rocked the Puerto Rican political establishment for the second time.

by Alex Lubben
Jul 15 2019, 7:01pm

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A leaked chat full of memes and misogyny has rocked the Puerto Rican political establishment and led to calls for the island’s governor to resign.

Two of Puerto Rico’s top government officials have stepped down in the midst of a scandal over the chat, filled with homophobic and misogynistic memes and jokes about journalists and other politicians. That news broke less than a week after six people, including two formerly high-ranking officials, were indicted on fraud-related charges for allegedly laundering millions of dollars in federal funds, which were supposed to be used for Medicaid and education on the island.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, is standing firm for now, even as protesters sleep outside his mansion to make their calls for his resignation heard. He’s still running for reelection.

"I was elected by the people and I will continue the mission that was granted to me, now more than ever," he said in a statement on Saturday.

And all of this is going down as the island wades through historic bankruptcy negotiations. Puerto Rico is trying to restructure $120 billion worth of debt — and trying to get Congress to allocate more funds for healthcare and its ongoing Hurricane Maria recovery efforts. President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused the island of misusing its federal hurricane recovery funds.

The texting scandal

Almost 900 pages of messages published Saturday by the Puerto Rican Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, show Rosselló and his cabal of advisers exchanging unsavory texts about journalists in Puerto Rico and their political rivals. The dozen operatives, including several officials from within Rosselló administration, sent the messages over secure texting app Telegram between the end of 2018 and January of this year.

The scandal has aptly been dubbed #TelegramGate.

The leaked chats are largely about how Rosselló and his closest allies worked to shift public narrative on social media and in local media in their favor. In one message, they referred to a Puerto Rican journalist as a “mamabicho,” which translates loosely to “dicksucker.” One of Rosselló's advisers asked another member of the group chat to make a gif of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz “dancing and screaming like a crazy woman.”

“I am salivating to shoot her,” Christian Sobrino, the island’s now-former chief financial officer, who resigned on Saturday, shortly after the messages were made public, according to Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Puerto Ricans have since taken to the streets to protest and faced off with riot police outside of the governor’s mansion. Puerto Rican pop stars Ricky Martin, who was mocked for being gay in the chat, and Bad Bunny, who’s going to the island to join the protests, have both called on Rosselló to step down.

Rosselló has tried to contain the outrage by announcing that Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin and Sobrino, would also resign. The governor also reportedly went to an evangelical church and prayed for forgiveness.

“I humble myself before you and before the Almighty for the faults I have committed,” he said, according to El Nuevo Día.

The corruption scandal

Before the texting scandal even broke, federal authorities unsealed a corruption indictment last week against two former officials accused of funneling about $15.5 million in big-ticket government contracts to businesses that they favored.

The FBI arrested both former officials Wednesday: Julia Keleher, the former secretary of Puerto Rico’s department of education, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, the former head of the island’s Health Insurance Administration. Along with the two government officials, three consultants and an executive at auditing firm BDO were also arrested.

“Both Keleher and Ávila-Marrero took advantage of their privileged positions as agency chiefs,” said U.S. Attorney for Puerto Rico Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez said at a press conference. “They defrauded the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments.”

The scandal rocked the Puerto Rican political scene hard enough for Rosselló to cut a European vacation short and fly back to the island — just in time for another scandal to break.

Cover image: In this Nov. 13, 2017 file photo, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello speaks during a news conference, in Washington. Rossello said on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, that he is privatizing the island’s government-owned power company following decades of mismanagement, corruption and blackouts. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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